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Russian Domesticated Red Fox (wikipedia.org)
96 points by luxoria on Nov 7, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 30 comments

This is one of my favorite things. Look at what they achieved with foxes in less than a century, then think of the tens of thousands of years we've domesticated dogs. The whole field of "dog science" is both fascinating and heartwarming.

RadioLab has also produced a podcast on changing the nature/behaviour. The third story is about the soviet experiments on red fox domestication: http://www.radiolab.org/story/update-new-normal/

There is an excellent and simultaneously light hearted Nat Geo documentary on this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qO11bdsWvOo

one thing that has always fascinated me is how the spread of "civillisation" is often akin to some "auto-domestication" in the traits that appear in a general population.

I read about those before. As I remember, they managed to breed the aggression out of them pretty quickly, but it's much harder to make them want the company of people, the way dogs do.

The article quotes someone speaking about the foxes:

Foxes in Class I are friendly toward experimenters, wagging their tails and whining. In the sixth generation bred for tameness we had to add an even higher-scoring category. Members of Class IE, the "domesticated elite," are eager to establish human contact, whimpering to attract attention and sniffing and licking experimenters like dogs. They start displaying this kind of behavior before they are one month old.

It took them a long time to get them to mostly reproduce with those traits (the modern ones only reach 80%), but the traits appeared in 6 generations.

Reproductive maturity at 10 months, so wild to at least some offspring fully "tamed" in less than a decade of selective breeding.

I know this is a downer, but given that the article states that 18% of the population are "elite" after 10 generations, and there are 2000 elite foxes now, doesn't "strong selection pressure" imply there were around 10K-30K individuals culled in this project for not belonging to "elite"? Is this normal breeding practice? Speaking as a somewhat guilty owner of a beloved papillon-breed dog.

I think your probably right. But then, 3.8 million animals were killed in Australia in September alone for human consumption.[1]

Although I do feel a bit moralistic about dog breeds that have been selected for specific physical appearance characteristics without much apparent attention given to the animals health. Pugs are a good (bad) example, the RSPCA takes a pretty dim view.[2]

Papillons have only minor health concerns although patellar luxation, seizures, and dental problems can be issues. Additionally they can be at risk for PRA, intervertebral disk disease, and allergies. [3]

It amazes me a bit that "dogs" are all the one species, Canis familiaris (which translates from Latin to 'family dog', cute). I wonder what we could do with humans if we selectively bread them for hundreds of generations.

1. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/7218.0.55 2. http://www.rspca.org.au/campaigns/pedigree-dogs/the-pug 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papillon_(dog)#Health

I wonder what humans could do with "us" (you? them?) if "we" selectively bread them for hundreds of generations!

They were kept for fur so culling would have been the normal outcome. In regards culling for breeding purposes you don't have to physical kill the unwanted individual, you just don't let them breed.

The modern population reproduces elite at a higher rate, 70 to 80%, and was grown from the ~100 foxes that the breeders were able to keep in 1998.

So the 2,000 that they have today doesn't say much about how many foxes they were breeding in the earlier generations (but over 50 generations the numbers culled probably do get into the thousands).

Radiolab on NPR had a great episode (New Normal) where one of three bits (New Nice) was about Dmitri Belyaev and these foxes. They also present the interesting idea that humans might have domesticated ourselves.


I have always wanted one of these foxes, but alas being in Australia would make it impossible.

You might want to think twice if you've never smelled fox urine.

(Dog|Cat) urine, on the other hand: a delightful bouquet.

Fox eclipses dog/cat by many orders of magnitude. You can smell it from quite a distance.

I have smelt fox urine before and while not great, it is not horrific. Apparently the tame ones don't smell as bad, but it would defiantly be something you would want to breed out.

It was a weapon when we I was in school. They might want to think twice to the power of some large number. (evil grin)

Why do you think it's impossible? My understanding is that all of the foxes sold as pets are sterilized so there wouldn't be a risk of introducing a foreign species.

Bringing in a dog from overseas is a 6 month and very expensive exercise. I very much doubt that AQIS is going to let me bring in a known noxious pest.

Edit. In most of Australia it is illegal to keep a pet fox, but in NSW you can if they are desexed and not released back into the wild [1]. I still doubt AQIS will let me bring one in.

1. http://sydneyfoxtails.tumblr.com

On the other hand, cats are allowed to travel freely throughout Australia, including to and from Tasmania, and yet we can't keep our native animals as pets. I'm super keen for a domesticated Possum breed, or a domesticated Tasmanian Devil breed.

Yes it is a shame we can't keep native mammals as pets. I would love a pet sugar glider. Americans can keep them, but not us [1].

1. http://www.news.com.au/world/australias-sugar-gliders-at-the...

A friend got a special permit and re-habbed injured native animals in his home. At any one time he often had baby kangaroos, wallabys, koalas, etc. They're all extremely cute. Bottle feeding a kangaroo in a hanging sock is fun.

When they're old enough he releases them back into the wild.

Australia is hostile to foreign animals. There was this really absurd example from a few months ago:


What is so absurd about that? Its good management of the natural resources of Australia, to protect them from invasive species ..

Don't forget there were two experiments, they also did a lineage of super aggressive foxes.

I want one of their hyper-aggressive rats: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2014/04/17/004234

If it had a rat, I'd want it to be this specific one:


The cats' expressions are priceless. :)

In Soviet Russia, mouse eats cat...

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